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The first recorded example of statistical estimation?

THE MAHABHARATA (see WIKIPEDIA entry) is a Sanskrit epic from ancient India, probably completed around the 4th century CE. It is referred to as the longest epic, or longest poem, ever written.

I believe this excerpt was cited in The Emergence of Probability by Ian Hacking. It is from Book III, Section LXXII, and I think describes an early example of statistical estimation. The highlighted portion reveals the methodology.


After Nala had addressed him thus, O king, the royal son of Bhangasura came upon a Vibhitaka tree with fruits in a forest. And seeing that tree, the king hastily said to Vahuka, ‘O charioteer, do thou also behold my high proficiency in calculation. All men do not know everything. There is no one that is versed in every science of art. Knowledge in its entirety is not found in any one person, O Vahuka, the leaves and fruits of this tree that are lying on the ground respectively exceed those that are on it by one hundred and one. The two branches of the tree have fifty millions of leaves, and two thousand and ninety five fruits. Do thou examine these two branches and all their boughs.’

Thereupon staying the car Vahuka addressed the king, saying, ‘O crusher of foes, thou takest credit to thyself in a matter which is beyond my perception. But, O monarch, I will ascertain it by the direct evidence of my senses, by cutting down the Vibhitaka. O king, when I actually count, it will no longer be matter of speculation. Therefore, in thy presence, O monarch, I will hew down this Vibhitaka. I do not know whether it be not (as thou hast said). In thy presence, O ruler of men, I will count the fruits and leaves. Let Varshneya hold the reins of the horses for a while.’


Then the king reluctantly told him, ‘Count. And on counting the leaves and fruits of a portion of this branch, thou wilt be satisfied of the truth of my assertion.

And thereupon Vahuka speedily alighted from the car, and felled that tree. And struck with amazement upon finding the fruits, after calculation, to be what the king had said, he addressed the king, saying, ‘O monarch, this thy power is wonderful. I desire, O prince, to know the art by which thou hast ascertained all this.’


Translated into English Prose from the Original Sanskrit Text by Kisari Mohan Ganguli. SOURCE: Project Gutenberg EBook.

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